Paul's advice on how to pass your exams

Welcome to a transcript of this podcast

Isobel Wroath: Welcome to this ACCA podcast. I'm Isobel Wroath, ACCA’s community lead. And today we're turning the tables on our usual host, Paul Kirkwood. The focus is going to be tips on how to get you ready to pass your next ACCA exam.

So, hi Paul, welcome to the other side.

Paul Kirkwood: It feels incredibly strange. It really does feel somewhat wrong, but I'm sure we'll survive.

Isobel: I'm excited. So, let's start off with your current role at ACCA, and maybe tell us what you enjoy most.

Paul: My role title is head of learner experience. I've been in this role coming up to two years now. Basically, I try to ensure that our students get the right resources that they need at the right time in their learning journey, and to set them up for exam success. And so really, it's what do you enjoy most? Well, I enjoy it when students succeed, and I have done in all of my education career. That's what I like to do. That's what makes me feel good. So yeah, absolutely. Student success drives me and makes me happy.

Isobel: And you mentioned education there, and I know that you used to be an ACCA tutor. How long did you do that for?

Paul: That sounds awful when you when you look back, but it was over 15 years. And that wasn't all at the same time, I was in education, then I went into practice, and then came back into teaching for a bit and then went back into practice. How did I actually get there? I'm not really sure. I mean, I wasn't the greatest student in the world, but I was always in awe of some of the tutors at the front of the class who were able to turn, especially the subjects which were either complex, or maybe some of them which weren't that interesting. I was always in awe of tutors who could make complex subjects easy to understand. Or maybe ones which were less interesting. And I think that inspired me to actually become a tutor, and it's why I've done it for so many years.

Isobel: Yeah, it's a very satisfying role, isn't it, working in learner experience?

Paul: It is, Isobel, of course. We work together, you know, and yes, sharing success just makes all the work we do and all the effort we put in it worthwhile.

Isobel: So, let's move on to the focus of today's podcast. So, let's think about exam day getting closer, is there anything specific that you would suggest the student does to get ready for the exam?

Paul: Yeah, if we think back in time a little bit, really getting ready for the exam day itself. I would often have said you've got to make sure you know where your exam centre is. And looking back in time, most of the exams were paper based, therefore, you had to make sure you had your pen, and your spare pen, and your pencil and your calculator, things that students should do to get ready for their exam day itself, maybe just making sure they've got all the basics right, and of course around the world, that's still holds true for students who are sitting a paper-based exam in a centre. I suppose we've also got to turn or look forward and look at current times where a lot of our students, everyone who's doing on demand, or everybody who's doing Applied Skills, and more and more people who are doing Strategic Professional will be doing CBE exams, so the computer-based exams. But again, you still got to make sure that you're comfortable with the basics. Now even in the exam environment, are you going to use your own calculator? Or are you going to use the on screen one, for example. And I think a lot comes down to practice. So, if you were thinking about the way paper exams are taken and we prepare for them, we'd be practising exam questions on paper. Now in the CBE world, it's vital to be practising using the environment you're going to take your exam in and that of course means using the ACCA practice platform.

Isobel: That's interesting. So, sticking with the method of exams, of course, many exams are currently being run as remote invigilation. So, can you tell us what a student needs to do if they're preparing to sit for an exam remotely?

Paul: It's vital to realise that, when you press start on the exam itself, there's no difference. The exam environment, the computer-based exam environment is exactly the same whether you're sitting in a centre, or you're sitting at home. So, the moment you press start, the environment is the same. So, practice, practice, practice using that computer-based environment using the ACCA practice platform. However, for those doing remote invigilation, and you will get a lot of communication from ACCA, and there is a dedicated section of the website for you to look at, which tells you the importance of doing the system tests in advance, to also think about the location, you're going to do the exam. And yes, again, there's guidance from ACCA on the website, and you'll get it through email support as well. But practice in that environment. I love the idea of being able to practice using the equipment you're going to use on your exam day in the place where you're going to sit your exam. And then it just takes away any of that stress around preparing for the exam day itself. One final thing: just make sure, again, you've got a very good strong internet connection, wired, if at all possible. And again, there's another a test to do in advance of a remotely invigilated exam.

Isobel: Great. So, practice, and familiarise yourself as much as possible.

Paul: That sounds sensible to me.

Isobel: So those are very practical points for getting ready for the exam itself. What can you suggest are good activities for the last few days before the exam?

Paul: This is such a big question, because every student will get to those last few days and be at slightly different points in their learning journey. Some students will have been preparing for months and have a very detailed plan and will have those final days mapped out. As I mentioned earlier, I was a terrible student. I was a bit of a crammer. And I did do a lot of work in the run up to those final few days. But for me, those final few days were crucial. And I certainly made the most of them practice and exam standard questions. But most importantly, spending time debriefing, looking at what I got right or looking at what I got wrong. And I'd say that is so important for students in those final few days to make every minute of studying count, especially with question practice, is do a proper debrief and a marking exercise that will probably drive you to do some other things, will probably drive you to recap key areas, look back, build a bit of your technical knowledge up. So, it's not all about one thing or the other. There's probably a number of activities. And think back to previous exam sessions. Use your own knowledge, think about when things went well, think about when you were able to go in the exam room and when you were on top of your game, what did you do in those few days before that exam, and maybe try and replicate as much as you can. I've said recap key areas, depending on the subject you're doing. My subjects of expertise were the auditing stream subjects, and I knew that audit risk would come up in the exam. So, I made sure I focused some time in the run up to the exam itself on audit risk, because it was such an important part of the syllabus, similarly with audit reports, I'd spent time making sure that I was comfortable with those big areas of the syllabus. I've talked a lot there about doing stuff. But I think it's also important not to expect too much from yourself. Sometimes you put out those rose-tinted glasses, and you think, tomorrow I'm going to do three mock exams, I'm going to do 14 practice tests, and I'm going to mark them all, and then I'm going to cook tea for the family, then I'm going to do X, and it's just not going to happen, and you set yourself off on the wrong foot. Don't expect too much. Put in some time off. You need to be as fresh as possible. So yeah, you're going to be working hard, I'm sure, in the run up to the exams themselves. But make sure you think of yourself as well.

Isobel: I think that's a really important point you've just made. The lead up to the exams is obviously such a stressful time for all students. So, do have any more well-being tips for them?

Paul: You're absolutely right. Everyone's slightly different, aren't they? For me, I was a morning person, so I used to make sure that I tried to get a good night's sleep. So, I went to bed early. And I think the importance of sleep is very well understood. But again, everyone's in a different position. You know, some people will still be working around their exams, other people have family responsibilities. But the more you can just spend a little bit of time thinking about your well-being the better. You know, and I know it sounds easy for me to say it, but just thinking about what you eat, and trying to make sure that your diet is reasonable in the run up, it does help. We're spending a lot of time at the moment on screens, obviously, I've mentioned the ACCA practice platform for students who are doing the computer-based exams, and there's a lot of video support, whether it's from ACCA or from the learning providers, I do think there needs to be a bit of screen time break as well. And I'm not even talking about the time we spend on social media, or just watching TV generally. So, making some outside time maybe, getting some fresh air would be good. And most importantly, not feeling guilty when you take time off. Because taking that time off will make your study better, as well.

Isobel: Yeah, I think that's really good advice. I think not feeling guilty is hard sometimes. But it's a very important part of any study plan. Would you encourage students as well to reach out to others for support?

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. This is interesting as well; I was on a webinar about a week ago with another tutor. And we were talking just about this and I reflected back about when I was in a classroom, and you'd have the students around you and they'd be talking to each other, it is a little bit more difficult, especially in the current climate where a lot of face-to-face learning isn't happening in various places around the world. And I know that there's other means of support, and all students join WhatsApp groups which are fantastic. There's a student learning community, which I'd really encourage people to join. So, Google ACCA student learning community, and log in. And you can ask your fellow students questions, not just about exam specific technical questions, but about well-being type questions as well. It's a really nice environment for students to support each other. So definitely, students supporting themselves. We do an awful lot of by texting or other types of nonverbal communication, if you have got someone who can talk to another student to chat to mull things over, sometimes there's nothing better than having a chat. I always like speaking to people sometimes, I get emailed out at work quite a lot. Did you find the same thing?

Isobel: Yeah, definitely. I mean, there's nothing better than just talking through your experiences to someone who totally gets it. And just sharing your experiences and the challenges that you come across. I can't agree more.

Paul: Yeah, I suppose on the other side of that coin. Sometimes it's nice to be able to talk people who don't understand what you're going through. And what I mean by that is, sometimes you just want to escape from your ACCA exams, and just have a chat about something completely different. So, your friends and family are really important. The webinar that I mentioned, I ran about a week ago, was getting your friends and family to buy in and making sure that they're aware of what you're doing, especially when there's an end date. The next exam session is within a month, and then there's some time off, but if you can get your friends and family to understand what you've gone through, and its importance to you, then maybe they can help you find that little bit of extra space or take a little bit of pressure off you to help you in the run up to the exam itself.

Isobel: Yeah, that sounds good. So obviously, we've just gone through everything that students can do to look after their wellbeing. But inevitably, students will feel nervous in the days and maybe weeks leading up to the exam. Do you have any thoughts on how to manage or cope with nerves? I know this is something I've always struggled with, myself as well. So be interesting to see if got any good tips.

Paul: Oh, that that's interesting. And it is a very tough question. Because again, it comes back to the point we've made a few times doesn't it, that everyone is different. And nerves can be good, because they get the adrenaline pumping, especially in the run up to the exam itself. But undoubtedly, too much can be negative and can be very disruptive, if not destructive on your preparation. And knowing that people can really struggle to perform when those nerves get the better of them. I do find it difficult to advise in this area. Because maybe I was a bit strange. I said I wasn't a great student, but I used to like the exam feeling, and that adrenaline used to get a buzz out of it. I didn't pass all my exams; I failed a couple of my exams on my route to my qualification. And, my goodness, they hurt, not getting through exams hurt in a number of different ways. But after you get through that initial shock and pain and maybe a bit of sorrow, a bit of blaming everybody but yourself, the reality set in that it was an exam, it was something I can compartmentalise. I'd also like to point out that everyone suffers from nerves. I was nervous before we started this podcast, it's just those nerves appear. It's not something unnatural. It's not something which is uncommon. You've got the simple advice. And it's been several times in exams, where maybe you opened the question paper, look at it, and just think, oh, my goodness, I can't answer anything. And then you get that feeling of blind panic of what on earth, I'm not prepared, I'm not ready, this is going to be a disaster. And I think at that point, just take that little bit of time out. And I give this advice to students quite a bit, in an exam, if you get that ‘oh my goodness, I don't know what to do’ moment, take some time out, close your eyes for that 30 seconds, breathe, by taking a few moments, and it'll probably feel like minutes, but the reality is probably 30 seconds. By doing that, you just calm yourself down, get that heart rate down again, the realisation that you're there, you can simply do your best, reality is you've got whatever it is, whether it be two hours, three hours, four hours, take that little bit of time out, and then just try and refocus, and okay, I can't do x. Let's see what I can do. Move on. So, keep things compartmentalised, put things in perspective. It's strange that those simple ideas could help. But I will say one final thing, and I know I've maybe said a bit too much here, but for people that really are impacted badly by nerves, I think trying to seek some more professional support or advice may be the right thing to do, as I said, I'm certainly no expert. What do you think?

Isobel: As you were saying about breathing, it sometimes seems like the simplest things can become the hardest when you're nervous and panicking. And so yeah, just taking some time out to work out coping mechanisms is always helpful. I've struggled with nerves myself and working on breathing and mindfulness outside of the moment that you're worrying about, all of these things can help you relax, but also like you say, nerves can be good, and it's just about channelling them and making the most of that.

Paul: That's it, everyone is different, and everyone will probably have their own coping mechanisms, and many of them will probably be very similar for the majority of people.

Isobel: Yeah. And I think it's important to remember not to compare yourself to others, because someone might not look nervous, but inside, they'll probably be just as much of a nervous wreck as you are. So sometimes you imagine everyone else is coping perfectly.

Paul: That's a really good point. I mean, looking back to those exam days where you were sat in a hall, and everyone's around you, and every time you look up, everybody else seems to be working away, writing furiously, when you don’t know how to answer any of this. And every time you look up, it looks like everybody else is having the most amazing experience. The reality is, they're not and every exam I've ever come out of, when you start talking to people around you, they will always tell you how they found it challenging. And if you're finding something tough in the exam, it's incredibly likely that so will everybody else around you. And it's just almost that realisation that if you're having a challenging exam, so is everybody else, and it's just trying to get through it in the best possible way to do your best.

Isobel: So, let's just move on to the last question. On the exam day itself, so we've just talked about what it can be like, but in the run up in the last few hours, minutes before the exam? Are there any final tips what students should do?

Paul: Goodness me? I honestly think everybody should reflect and think back on exams that have gone well, what did you do? And are there things that you can replicate, which got you through? So why I say that is, as I used to get to exam halls, I would look around, and there would be people doing a multitude of things. There would be people, and this will show you how long ago this was, with personal cassette recorders. A Sony Walkman was a popular one at the time, there would be people who were listening to music, undoubtedly, there were probably people listening to recordings of themselves talking through the topics that we're going to be examined on. There were people sitting down, going through notes, there were people walking around nervously. There were people eating, there were people drinking water. Everybody was doing something. For me, in those moments for the exam, I never wanted to look through my notes. I didn't want to almost cloud my judgement. I was speaking to one of my colleagues, James on one of the earlier podcasts, we both found out we did a similar thing before we left the house. We both listen to a song. I think James’ calmed him down, mine got me into a bit of a frenzy, to get ready for the exam. So, it might be music, but you work out what works for you in those final moments of the exam. But I think we mentioned it right at the start, the last thing you want to be doing is worrying about where the exam is, how it's going to be examined. So, it's making sure you do all the basic things first, and then on your exam day you just get through it.

Isobel: Thank you so much, Paul, but before you go, I know that you always include a last question to get to know a little bit more about your guests. So now it's your turn. If you could have dinner with just one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Paul: Right. I knew I get caught out with this. You know what? I'm not going to say a specific person. I'm going to be controversial because it's really been my podcast series. So, I think I'm going to say I'd love to have dinner with someone who's been into space. I'm fascinated with space. And I don't really care who it is. But I just like to have dinner and just chat with them. I'd love to know what it's like to go up in a rocket. I'd like to know what it feels like, what's going through their minds and then, just the idea of weightlessness. And then what happens when you start to come back down to earth? You know, just like to chat with somebody knows what it's like. I doubt I'll get there myself. So, I think the next best thing would be to have dinner with someone who's been there.

Isobel: Well, that's a really good answer.

Paul: Well, you can come too, Isobel.

Isobel: Well, thank you so much. This has been fun.

Paul: Yes, it has, I feel like I've survived. And I now feel like I know the pressure I put other people through so hopefully it'll make me better when I do some more of these in the future as well. But thank you for your time.